Both the history and culture of France are complicated due to the constant conflicts and lack of regional unity during the country’s long centuries of settlement. Until about 200 years ago, difference and diversity were the bywords of the many small villages which formed France, and much of this regional culture still survives today.
Excavations have proved France’s continual occupation since human settlement began, and its recorded history dates way back to the Iron Age. The conquering Romans arrived to find Celtic and other tribes already in occupation of the land, with the Greeks already entrenched along the Mediterranean coastline. After the fall of Rome, Emperor Charlemagne ensured France’s domination by the Frankish powers for several hundred years, and France’s medieval kingdom had emerged by 1000 AD. In 1066, Duke William of Normandy, a vassal of the French king, conquered England and became its ruler.
France was one of the first European countries to move from a feudal state towards a nation state, although for most of the last 1,000 years it has seen wars with neighboring countries. Traditionally, its armies were disciplined and professional with capable leaders, which led to many victories although the financial and manpower costs were high. France’s famous ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV, ascended the throne during the 30 Years’ War from 1618 to 1648, at the same time spending huge amounts of money building up France’s art scene. Expanding Versailles from a simple hunting lodge to a magnificent palace was his most impressive venture.
The dynasty’s extravagance and wars, continued until matters came to a head with the French Revolution in 1789 during a time of extreme hardship for the peasant classes. The revolution began in Paris with looting and riots, and soon descended into anarchy, causing the royal court to abandon the city and the insurgents to storm the Bastille. Conflict ended after five years with Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, during which the royal family and many French aristocrats met their fate at the guillotine.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s two brief attempts at being Emperor of France ended with his army’s defeat in Russia and again at the Battle of Waterloo when the French were defeated by the British. Equally brief reinstatements of the monarchy were crushed in 1830 and again in 1848, and in 1870 the country was finally established as a republic. During WWI, northern France was occupied by the German Army and saw fierce fighting, and in WWII the north became an occupation zone, with the rest of the country part of Vichy France, run by collaborators.
Post-war France saw the break-up of its remaining colonial outposts, first in Vietnam and later in Algeria. The Algerian conflict nearly spilt the nation until the then President Charles de Gaulle took steps to end the war and give Algeria independence. Subsequently, France relinquished its other holdings, ending with Vanuatu. The country, at that point committed to monetary union and a unified Europe, was at the forefront of the founding of the European Union and the Eurozone.
The culture of France has been influenced over the centuries by the country’s turbulent history, its varied topography, and its long-standing contacts with neighboring countries, as well as its colonies. In the 19th century, Paris became the cultural hub of the world for its decorative Art Nouveau style, and for several centuries before that its upscale furniture makers had dominated Europe’s elite customer base with extravaganzas of inland woods and gilded ormolu decoration.
Until the 18th century, ‘French culture’ as an all-embracing concept didn’t exist, as each region and baronial area had its own distinct local customs and traditions. Even nowadays, the nation is a mass of multiple ethnicities and regional diversities. Social class is still important, as are the regional aspects of cuisine, dialect and language, and tradition. However, the French as a whole are very proud of their national identity.
Family values form a major part of culture in France, and responsibility to your namesake comes before all others in providing financial and emotional support. Romantic though they are, the French have a practical view of marriage and its survival as an institution in the modern world. Parents take their roles seriously, and there are fewer working mothers than in the rest of Europe. Cultural events such as opera, ballet, classical concerts, theater performances, and other traditional events are valued highly, as is the French natural ability for art.
Politeness and a degree of formality are customary in France, as the French are private people by nature. Etiquette plays a strong part in French lives, although they may relax standards to save embarrassment with foreign friends and acquaintances. When invited to a French home for a meal, guests should always arrive on time and bring a gift of flowers, wine (and a good one), or chocolates and dress to the nines as style is everything. When invited to a Paris dinner party, flowers should be sent the same morning as they will be displayed during the evening.
The dress code tends to be formal and elegant, especially when dining at good restaurants or visiting ancient churches and cathedrals. On the beaches, of course, it’s business as usual for designer bikinis and sunglasses. Visiting the country in July or August may cause problems as the entire country goes on holiday and many stores and restaurants not crammed with tourists may be closed. It’s best to wait until you’re invited to do so before you call a Frenchman by his first name, and handshakes are the most common form of greeting. When shopping, ‘bonjour’ (good morning) or ‘bonsoir’ (good evening), Monsieur (or Madame) is polite, as is ‘au revoir’ upon leaving the shop. France takes great pride in their language and appreciate you not just expecting them to speak English.